This weekend, the PBS show Religion and Ethics Newsweekly will feature a segment on groups gathering in pubs to talk about God and faith. One group highlighted will be Kyrie Pub Church, a community in Fort Worth Texas that has worship services in a pub. The other featured group will be a Pub Theology gathering I facilitated in Washington, DC. The story, as I understand it, is about people seeking non-traditional forms of community and faith outside the church walls—at the bar. Continue Reading..
Guest post by Fr. Kirk Berlenbach, rector of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in the Roxborough neighborhood of Philadelphia. He has been facilitating the parish beer club (The Franklin Club) since 2007. Originally posted at So This Priest Walks Into a Bar.
WASHINGTON DC – One of the great things about the internet is that, no matter how obscure your interest or hobby, the net allows you the chance to seek out and connect with other people who are just as off kilter. When I began to take this whole faith and beer thing more seriously one of the first things I tried to do was see who else out there might be doing it too. I was pleased to find I was not alone in the universe. I came across and have since corresponded with a couple of kindred souls.
Among them are guys like Michael Camp, author of Confessions of a Bible Thumper: My Homebrewed Quest for a Reasoned Faith, which is next up on my reading list. Another book on the subject is Diary of a Part Time Monk by J. Wilson which I just finished reading. I referenced J’s quest to emulate the monks of old in this post. In short, he attempted to follow the Lenten discipline of monks who fasted existing only on their dopplebock. The book is his account of this remarkable experience.
Then there is Bryan Berghoef. When I finished reading his book, Pub Theology, I knew we had to at least correspond. We hit it off and found we had a lot in common, not just in terms of our love of beer but also in terms of our approach to ministry and the Church’s need to find new ways to connect with the ever increasing “spiritual but not religious” population. We discussed the idea of a visit but never got around to making specific plans.
Then, a few months ago I got the bright idea to do an event on the whole “beer-faith connection” as part of this year’s Philly Beer Week. (more on this in next week’s post). Anyway, when I was thinking through other clergy who could work with me on this event, Bryan was on the short list. I contacted him and he was very excited at the possibility. But I thought it was important to meet the man I was going to work with. Moreover, I wanted to see an example of one of his “Pub Theology” sessions up close and personal.
So last week I took the train down to DC. Bryan met me at the station and we headed off to the pub where that night’s conversation would take place. The whole concept of Pub Theology is “Beer, Conversation, God.” The gathering is open to anyone who wishes to attend and the topics are sent out a few days ahead of time. On the heels of the massive Oklahoma tornado the topic included God’s role in natural disasters, as well as more abstract topics like, “Was there a time before time?” and “Scientists say dark matter is inferred, not seen. Can you call that faith?”
We talked over burgers and beers and then made our way to the back part of the bar to wait and see who would show up. Over time the group grew to a very respectable 15 people. Many were members of Bryan’s new church planting project, Roots DC. Others were visitors and one was a local clergy colleague. People’s perspectives varied, greatly (and thanks to the presence of a young woman from South Sudan, also went beyond just an American lens) and at least one person was by openly an atheist.
As the conversation progressed and folks ordered their 2nd or third beer, people definitely became more vocal. Yet a no time was there a hint of disrespect or even frustration.
What Bryan has built here is no small accomplishment. To create an environment where people, many of whom are strangers, can speak openly and honestly about the deeper issues of life is quite extraordinary. As I have reflected on this I began to see the genius of Bryan’s concept. While such a group could take place over coffee or in a park, the setting of the bar is really critical to its success.
Where else but in a bar can friends, acquaintances and strangers all engage impassioned debate yet still remain not just civil but even jovial? Now it is true that often times those debates are about how the manager is mishandling the bullpen and not dark matter. But there are many times I have heard focused discussion about politics, God and the meaning of life coming from the other end of the bar or the next table.
It seems to me that if the bar is indeed the new Forum, then Bryan has indeed hit upon a valuable insight into how the Church can connect with the world outside its walls. The key lies first in a willingness to go out to where the people are rather than insisting that they come to us. But just as important is the setting. In order to get people talking about what they really believe about God and what truly matters in life, then you can’t do much better than your local pub. And, at least in my opinion, the best way to start any meaningful conversation is over a good pint.
So here’s to Bryan and Pub Theology and the rediscovery of a great way to talk about God and all things that matter most.
You can read Kirk’s latest thoughts at So This Priest Walks Into a Bar: Beer, Music, and a Thirst for God, or find him enjoying a craft beer somewhere in Philadelphia.
An Irishman moves into a tiny hamlet in County Kerry, walks into the pub and promptly orders three beers.
The bartender raises his eyebrows, but serves the man three beers, which he drinks quietly at a table, alone.
An hour later, the man has finished the three beers and orders three more.
This happens yet again.
Finally, a week later, the bartender broaches the subject on behalf of the town. “I don’t mean to pry, but folks around here are wondering why you always order three beers?”
‘Tis odd, isn’t it?” the man replies, “You see, I have two brothers, one went to America, and the other to Australia. We promised each other that we would always order an
extra two beers whenever we drank as a way of keeping up the family bond.”
The bartender and the whole town was pleased with this answer, and soon the Man Who Orders Three Beers became a local celebrity and source of pride to the hamlet,
even to the extent that out-of-towners would come to watch him drink.
Then, one day, the man comes in and orders only two beers. The bartender pours them with a heavy heart. This continues for the rest of the evening – he orders only two beers.
The word flies around town. Prayers are offered for the soul of one of the brothers.
The next day, the bartender says to the man, “Folks around here, me first of all, want to offer condolences to you for the death of your brother. You know-the two beers
The man ponders this for a moment, then replies, “You’ll be happy to hear that my two brothers are alive and well.
It’s just that I, myself, have decided to give up drinking for Lent.”
Delightful story, and fitting, as I have decided to give up beer for Lent. Alas, if I could do it his way…!
TRAVERSE CITY (AP) – Surrounded by some new art, and sitting beneath a sign that designated the space as purgatory, about fifteen people of various lineage gathered at the Pub during Holy Week, or more precisely, on Maundy Thursday.
What exactly is Maundy Thursday?
Great question – but they weren’t there to answer that. (Though it’s apparently also known as the Thursday of Mysteries.)
Some wonderful brews on tap, not least of which was the Darkstar Stout flowing from the cask. (You can never go wrong with the cask).
First topic: What is your earliest memory?
There were several good ones. Here’s a taste:
– “I remember being spoonfed a sundae by my mother at Dairy Queen while sitting in the stroller…”
– “There was an old barn across from the apartment complex we lived in. I remember distinctly sitting on the hill by our apartment, watching a large barn across the street burn to the ground. I was three.”
– “Something about being on the stairs, and my sister wasn’t around yet, which makes it about the only memory I have from then.”
– Mine: “I was probably four, in the basement with a friend. My mom was doing the laundry in the room next to us. We were throwing plastic bowling pins up at the naked lightbulb. Eventually we managed to hit it – throwing glass and darkness all over us. There were screams.”
– “My earliest memory is of my older brother having his dirty diaper changed, which means I must have been about six months old. Wait… that can’t be right.”
– The best one: “I have no particular memory of my early years. Just some vague feelings.”
There was general debate about when the earliest you can remember is… Some said three, others said four. One claimed to have a memory from much earlier.
I noted that my kids watch videos of themselves from when they were babies and toddlers, and we all sort of wondered about what that would do to their memories as they grow up. (I make a year-end video of the kids every December – Lubbergho. Perhaps I’ll post one on youtube one of these days).
It was a great opening conversation, and we went various places from there, hitting on a few of these topics:
1. Have you ever felt truly alone?
Describe the situation. What did you do?
Are there practices that help you in those moments?
2. What is your favorite day of Holy Week?
Do you connect more with Good Friday or Easter?
3. What do you believe happened on the cross?
4. “To believe in the gospel in today’s day and age, one must first understand that language does not only denote objective realities.”
5. Does all knowledge derive from experience?
6. Do atheists get respect in our culture? Why/Why not?
We wrapped up the evening by musing on the following poem:
I am afraid
The gulf between us is vast
As all eternity
The frozen hand of death
Touches my throat
Catching my words unspoken
Alone we die
Together we live
Reach out now
Help me live
In love together
We cannot die
If you have a thought on the above, or an earliest memory you’d like to share, post it below!
We had about a dozen people at Pub Theology last night over at Right Brain Brewery in the Warehouse district.
There’s nothing like coming in from the cold in Northern Michigan to a good brew and good conversation with friends and strangers!
On tap last night:
Here were the topics and quotes to get conversation rolling:
1. What about time? Does eternity exist?
From Introducing Radical Orthodoxy by James K.A. Smith:
“Modernity eternalizes the present. A modern ontology is characterized by a flatness and materialism that ultimately lead to nihilism – a loss of the real squandered into nothing. When the world is so flattened that all we have is the immanent, the immanent implodes upon itself.”
“Only a participatory ontology – in which the immanent and material is suspended from the transcendent and immaterial – can grant the world meaning.”
2. Is reason reliable?
Immanuel Kant in the introduction to Critique of Pure Reason: “Human reason, in one sphere of its cognition, is called upon to consider questions, which it cannot decline, as they are presented by its own nature, but which it cannot answer, as they transcend every faculty of the mind.”
More from Introducing RO: “The myth of secularity relies upon the modern dualism of faith and reason.”
“We must protest equally against assertions of ‘pure reason’ and ‘pure faith’ as against theology as an internal autistic idiolect, and against theology as an adaptation to unquestioned secular assumptions… The apparently opposite poles are in secret collusion: the pursuit of pure faith is as much a modern quest as the pursuit of pure reason.” We must seek a via media in which the theoretical foundations of secularity are dismantled – whence the spaces for public discourse will provide new opportunities for the expression of a properly theological account of reality
3. What about ghosts?
I don’t have time to give a full recap here, but there was some good debate about modernity/pre-modernity and conceptions of time. About what does it mean to be fully present in the here and now, and does this present awareness become overbearing when approached from a materialist perspective? There was no consensus on that, though one person, referencing Eckhart Tolle, noted that ‘all we really have is the present moment’.
Is reason reliable? Again, some good discussion, and general agreement that it is. No consensus on faith/reason as a false or appropriate division.
There were also some ghost stories shared.
Have a thought about the above topics? Post a comment below.
Every once in a while, it’s good to ask yourself, “When was the last time I had a real conversation with someone who doesn’t believe in God? Do I even know anyone like that?”
The reality is that people of no religious belief are one of the fastest-growing segments of the population. They’re also just the sort of people Jesus engaged.
With this in mind, our church began to contemplate how we could connect with people who would never set foot in a church on Sunday morning. We decided we had to go where people were already hanging out. So a year and a half ago, on an October Thursday evening, we started a conversation group called “Pub Theology.”
We had cleared the plan with the owner of a local brewery and put up a few posters, but we weren’t really sure what to expect. More than 15 people showed up that first night, and we’ve rarely missed a Thursday since.
In many ways we’ve connected with the crowd we set out to meet: people who have left the church but consider themselves “spiritual” individuals who believe in an undefined higher power, atheists, Buddhists, and others. It’s an open environment: there are no presentations or lectures, just good talk over a good brew.
Fertile Ground and a Safe Place
One of Pub Theology’s regular attenders, Steve, is an atheist. He loves coming because it’s the first time he’s met Christians who are willing to admit they don’t know it all. “If more Christians were like this, I would be much more open toward people of faith,” he said to me. Many of the Christians who attended Pub Theology have said the same thing about people of unbelief. That is a healthy development. It opens the door to meaningful relationships that can become fertile ground where the gospel can be seen, experienced, and shared.
Rebecca, a former Christian who openly declares her lack of belief in God, noted that Pub Theology feels like a “safe place” to talk about matters of faith. She also says she never senses a tone of condescension. “So often you try to talk to people about this stuff and it’s clear they feel superior to you and are less than subtle about their underlying agenda to convert you to their position,” she said.
Hanging out at the pub this past year has taught me that I have a lot to learn from people who think differently than I do. One of the unfortunate tendencies of Christians, myself included, is to surround ourselves only with people who think like us. This limits our own ability to think, to learn, to ask questions, to grow. It’s hard to be objective about something when you’ve never heard another perspective. It’s also easy to start thinking that you’ve got all the answers. Or that your answers are the best answers. Or that you need to talk with non-Christians only so you can “tell them how it is.”
Certainly we should be enthusiastic about what we believe and desire to share those beliefs with others, but we are shortsighted and ignorant if we think we’ve got the whole world figured out. Not to mention that few people enjoy talking with someone who thinks he or she has all the answers; the conversation tends to be a bit one-sided.
Persuading by Love
Often in encounters with people of different beliefs, Christians end up using oversimplified arguments in an aggressive way. In other words, we attempt to persuade someone by the cold facts, rather than by love and by reliance on the Holy Spirit.
In opposition to this, consider the apostle Paul: “When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. . . . My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Cor. 2:1-5).
Consider also the approach Jesus took. Rarely do we see him engaging in arguments about God’s existence or even attempting to prove who he was through his miracles. In fact, many times Jesus’ miracles were for a different purpose: to bring healing. And often when someone wanted to tell everyone else about it, Jesus told that person to keep quiet.
Peter Rollins, in his book How (Not) to Speak of God, elaborates: “Instead of offering a scientific explanation that would convince, or publicizing the miracles so as to compel his listeners, Jesus engaged in a poetic discourse that spoke to the heart of those who would listen. In a world where people believe they are not hungry, we must not offer food but rather an aroma that helps them desire the food that we cannot provide.”
In our gatherings at the pub, we’ve had evenings where some well-intentioned Christians have shown up armed with Bibles, tracts, and pamphlets. Their agendas are written on their sleeves, and the conversations in these instances rarely go well. (Mis)treating people as the objects of evangelism has negative effects on them and on us: others can sense when we aren’t listening or aren’t taking their beliefs seriously. They are repelled by that, and we miss opportunities to learn something or to befriend someone when we open our mouths and not our ears.
Encounters with people of different beliefs will, for many Christians, be eye-opening, difficult, and challenging, perhaps requiring us to critically examine long- and deeply-held beliefs. To participate honestly and lovingly is to open yourself up to sometimes scary doubts. If you choose to do this, prayerful preparation may be required.
These interactions definitely come with unexpected blessings as well. Sitting at the table with agnostics, atheists, Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Muslims, Buddhists, and others has broadened my own perspective in a healthy way. I’ve learned things about other faith traditions, other ways of seeing the world. I’ve been forced to examine the things I believe and the things I take for granted. This is a good and healthy thing.
I’ve also learned that Christians aren’t the only people who want good things to happen in the world. While people of different belief systems may have different motivations for doing good, we can often agree on far more than we think. Even though people of non-belief are one of the fastest-growing elements of the population, we should not fear that statistic. Rather, we should see it as an opportunity to meet someone who sees the world differently yet often cares for it equally.
Today, when believers are portrayed as “delusional” and atheists caricatured as “evil,” we need more than ever to sit at the same table, ready to learn. When that happens, I can’t help but think that a little leaven of God’s kingdom mixes through the dough.
This article originally appeared in The Banner entitled How (Not) to Talk about God.